The Emerging Art of Choral Theater

Is this growing trend a gimmick? Or a glimpse of the future?

Choral musicmaking is all about the sound, not what you see on stage.

John Alexander appreciates the argument. Fifty years ago, early in his conducting career, he felt that way himself. But not anymore. At his initiative in 2014, the Pacific Chorale staged what may be the first-ever choral opera. Created by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, The Radio Hour uses a silent actress to portray Nora, a woman nudged out of an emotional funk by music she hears on the radio and by her own scattered thoughts. The staging featured some of the singers on risers with prop microphones, as if in a radio recording studio, while others moved about on stage, interacting with Nora.

The Pacific Chorale, based in Costa Mesa, California, and Radio Hour co-commissioners VocalEssence, Conspirare, and the Philadelphia Singers are part of a growing trend among vocal ensembles to incorporate narrative, movement, set design, and lighting into their performances. What sets choral opera apart from traditional opera, says Alexander, is that instead of spotlighting soloists, “it makes the chorus the star.”

Vince Peterson, founder and artistic director of New York’s Choral Chameleon, likes to use the broader term choral theater, or choral storytelling. His ensemble, comprising a professional core of 12 and 30-40 volunteers, pursues a mission “to reinvent the art of choral music from every perspective.” In the group’s eight-year history, one of Peterson’s favorite theatrical projects has been Tamar of the River, a musical that composer Marisa Michelson turned into a staged oratorio for Choral Chameleon in 2013. It centers on a courageous young woman striving for peace in a divided world. The production, billed as “an immersive, multi-room experience,” took place in a Brooklyn church. When he asks his singers to move—“choralography,” he calls it—Peterson generally prefers simple gestures such as a bow or a turn of the head. But in one passage of Tamar of the River, singers “intertwined their arms and legs into a knot,” he says. “The tenors were in the middle of the knot, and they were also buried in the choral texture. As their bodies emerged from the inside, their part did too.”

Choral ChameleonChoral Chameleon staged an oratorio adaptated from composer Marisa Michelson's musical Tamar of the River in a Brooklyn church.

In Peterson’s case, the choral theater impulse springs from his work with composer Conrad Susa and conductors Joseph Jennings and Mark Shapiro, which taught him to craft programs that tell a story and deliver “a moral or ethical punch line.” Alexander’s interest stems from his experience conducting musical theater in Kentucky after graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory and, later, scripted Christmas programs he produced for the University of Illinois Chamber Choir: music director of a summer musical theater troupe. Comparing the audience response there to the reactions he observed at traditional choral concerts, the self-described “purist” decided that “just standing there and moving our mouths” is not enough to reach a wider audience. After moving west and taking over the Pacific Chorale in 1972, he began to add dance and other visual components to his performances, and introduced explicitly narrative elements in recent years. That does not mean Alexander has abandoned traditional choral repertoire. “I have devoted my life to that,” he declares. “If we’re singing a Brahms motet, we need to sing a Brahms motet.” But, he feels, “we can mix styles in a way that absolutely enhances the experience of the audience. There needs to be a visual component.”

Timothy Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC), feels the same way. Along with other performing arts organizations, he says, “we compete with basic things such as television, Internet and Twitter.” In 2015, the ensemble responded to that challenge by creating a show called #twitterlieder, with music by James Eakin and lyrics by Anthony Silvestri, consisting of 15 songs, each text representing a 140-character tweet, with the mini-stories—both touching and humorous—acted out silently in front of the chorus and soloists. “In an age of fast-moving entertainment and growing competition for time and resources, the old way of doing things won’t stand up anymore,” says Seelig.

For some, that may mean an experience that embraces the new online lifestyle, as #twittlerlieder does. For others, it may mean the opposite. In a world where technology mediates so many of our connections, Choral Chameleon board chair Nicole Belmont feels “people are demanding more visceral live experiences and having a sense of encounter.” At Choral Chameleon performances, fans find themselves sitting on a floor, changing their seating position during a performance, listening in the dark, or being surrounded by performers who are walking around the space. Peterson describes the ensemble’s approach as “a way of meeting people where they are, and igniting in them some joyful curiosity.”

Choral theater productions are also providing a new framework in which to experience centuries-old music. In October of 2016 audiences in New York City witnessed The Human Requiem by the Berlin Radio Choir, while the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) prepared its season-opening Lagrime di San Pietro. Both ensembles placed works traditionally heard in concert venues—Brahms’s German Requiem and Orlando di Lasso’s cycle of madrigali spirituali—into theatrical context with stagings, by Jochen Sandig and Peter Sellars respectively, that emphasized community experience. For the Brahms, audience members mingled with the performers in an open space, standing, walking, or sitting on cushions as the story of death and hope unfolded. In Los Angeles, a traditionally seated audience observed 21 singers from the LAMC reflecting Lasso’s polyphony in emotionally powerful stage movement that ranged from ritualistic group gestures to individual singers embracing and cradling each other.

A Trend With Centuries-Old Roots

Although staged performances in the U.S. noticeably increased starting in the 2012-13 season, it’s not easy to determine who pioneered this trend, or to pinpoint its origins. “People have been singing and moving at the same time for several millennia,” LAMC artistic director Grant Gershon quips, “as they still do quite happily, until we stack them onto a bunch of risers and put music in their hands.” Staged oratorios go as far back as the 18th century, when they presented theaters in Catholic areas of Europe a way to sidestep the church’s ban on opera performances during Lent. A touchstone for choral theater is Carl Orff’s 1936 “scenic cantata” Carmina Burana, which features several theatrical elements, including staging.

When working in big Baptist churches in the 1980s, Seelig discovered the trend of “huge pageants featuring choir, orchestra, fully staged and costumed. When I moved from church to the world of gay men’s choruses, they were very receptive to the idea and some had already begun to incorporate production elements.” The 39-year-old, 200-member SFGMC has introduced numerous choral theater productions, including Andrew Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk and Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch, both in 2013. GALA Choruses have launched notable choral theater efforts elsewhere in North America, among them, the multi-chorus commission Oliver Button Is a Sissy by Alan Shorter, and a musical documentary format that combines music, narration, and multi-media to illustrate social issues developed by Kansas City’s Heartland Chorus.

Lagrime di San PietroIn October 2016, the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed Orlando di Lasso's madrigal cycle Lagrime di San Pietro in a staging by director Peter Sellars.

Sellars’s name appears again and again as a collaborator on non-traditional choral projects. Many artists mention his 2010 direction of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Berlin Radio Choir as transformative in their understanding of what theatrical staging can do to break the barrier of formality in performance. In what was billed as a “ritualization” rather than a staging, the choir, vocal soloists, and instrumentalists fill the playing space, as well as parts of the concert hall, with realistic movement and more stylized groupings. Gershon credits his work with Sellars for revealing “how powerful an organic approach to staging could be in concert music…how illuminating it can be to physicalize the music.”

New Layers of Challenge and Complexity

Far from “powerful” or “organic,” the description some conductors would choose for theatrical presentation is “gimmicky.” And they argue that a score-focused rehearsal process and traditional concert format produce superior musical results. Reviews of the Berliners in The Human Requiem noted that the expressive choreography didn’t always make up for a lack of vividness in the singing. Even choral theater advocates such as Alexander admit that movement and staging make ensemble sound more difficult to achieve. “It’s my greatest frustration,” he says. But as in opera, “you have to be willing to accept it.”

Nally understands the concern about gimmickry. He worries that often directors attempt to “dress up” a work because they feel “we live in a switched-on world and that concert music needs to be ornamented to be palatable.” His goal, instead, is to find a theatrical approach that is organic and layered, not imposed. “The more the staging gets inside the story and also reflects the inherent musical affect of any moment, the more successful the production,” he says.

The Crossing, an 11-year-old professional chamber choir, has premiered many theatrical works, including Thomas Lloyd’s 2013 Bonhoeffer, a choral-theater piece for three female soloists, male chamber choir, and two dancers, with text drawn from letters written by German theologian and Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather than memorizing, the singers used scores disguised as prayer books and other props. Broad Street Review critic Tom Purdom found the staging “added meaningful images,” including one scene where “chorus members assumed the role of Bonhoeffer's Confessing Church and responded by forming a circle with their backs turned to the religious establishment that had betrayed its faith.”

Coming up with the right approach is just the beginning. Sharing artistic responsibility with stage directors, scenic designers, and choreographers can be a difficult, time-consuming proposition. The blocking, choreography, and costuming change an ensemble’s rehearsal trajectory. Whereas the LAMC will schedule anywhere from four to nine rehearsals for a typical concert (including initial piano and onstage rehearsals), its staging of Lagrime di San Pietro required 27 rehearsals. “And that was barely enough,” Gershon says.

Nonetheless, practitioners of choral theater consider collaboration a core value. Peterson believes that working with theater colleagues, “asking them questions, humbling myself in front of the chorus,” helps his singers appreciate that he’s not “a dictator,” he says. “We’re all working together.” While he concedes that letting go of control can be a significant challenge for conductors, Seelig also believes in “trusting, allowing others who are experts to add their talent.” The payoff, he says, is that “the collaborations have been some of the most rewarding of my career.”

twitterliederPerforming the song cycle #twitterlieder, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus sang and acted out texts representing 140-character tweets.

For Alexander, the key is to make his musical priorities clear in his initial conversations with directors. “If the staging starts to affect the musical priority, we adjust the staging to get what I want musically.” It helps that the stage director he’s been working with is also a choral singer. “We have had great success in our collaborations, and it has been an absolute joy,” Alexander says. 

Then there are the additional financial demands of lighting, amplification, costumes, props, and perhaps a non-traditional performing venue as well. According to Choral Chameleon’s Belmont, “Site-specific productions in blank spaces can incur all kinds of charges you wouldn’t think of if you are used to renting churches or straightforward concert halls: chair-rental charges, charges for risers and platforms, vehicle rental for moving equipment around. Some venues in New York will charge you $300 a night just to use their projector, for example.”

Another challenge is even more basic. A production like The Radio Hour requires singers to move around and emote in ways that are highly unusual for choral music. Alexander remarks that working on a staged version of David Lang’s little match girl passion in 2012 taught him the traditional choral audition process for his 140-voice, professional core chorus is not enough to find singers with these skills. “It’s all about your voice and your musicianship. Never do we ask about their stage experience or their experience in dance.” Because some Pacific Chorale singers were uncomfortable being thrust into acting roles, he had to make personnel changes for those performances. The Radio Hour production team adjusted by devising roles for both singer-actors and a static choir (charged with “carrying the musical emphasis”).

Other organizations are consistently able to find the versatility they need in their current rosters. For SFGMC, Seelig auditions dancers and soloists separately, but always from within the chorus. Nally notes that most of the singers in The Crossing also perform opera, so movement is not new to them. “What is new is becoming an organism that breathes, moves, and reacts in a slightly different way due to the rhetoric of motion and what our bodies say to each other individually and collectively.”

Singers Grow, and So Do Audiences

In addition to breaking down divisions between performer and audience, incorporating movement and acting into an ensemble’s performance can deepen expressive possibilities, with dramatic results for conductor, ensemble, and public. After the LAMC premiered John Adams’s Gospel According to the Other Mary, staged by Sellars in 2013, Gershon became convinced his ensemble grew thanks to the experience. “Because they had internalized the piece so deeply through the staging, the singers were able to give a level of emotional and physical intensity to the concert performance that was truly breathtaking. The point is, ideally the staging is what allows the performers to access the music more deeply and personally.”

Seeing a beloved ensemble grow emotionally and dramatically has been a joy to several artists and administrators. Belmont claims that because of Peterson’s programming of theatrical works for Choral Chameleon over the past eight seasons, as well as its collaborations with artists in other disciplines, “we can say today that we have singers willing to say yes to trying anything. Because of this ‘yes’ mentality, we have now participated in three very high-profile external theatrical productions by invitation where as a choir we were acting as well as singing.” Gershon says the LAMC has been transformed by its work with “brilliant directors who know how unlock the essence of the music through movement. Although we can’t memorize and stage every concert, that work can and does inform everything that we do as an ensemble.”

There can be resistance from an ensemble’s devoted audience. Pacific Chorale marketing director Ryan McSweeney encountered “a small amount of pushback from a few of the more traditionally minded members of the audience” but overall, he says “our community proved to be much more open to new ideas than we might have feared. I think the audience also liked seeing the singers perform in ways that broke the mold for us.” As far as Alexander is concerned, that response disproves charges that theatrical elements are cheapening choral music. “They’re actually enhancing it, making it an art form that reaches more people.”

Daughter of LightOne of the Pacific Chorale's first choral theater productions was a 2012 staged version of David Lang's little match girl passion.

As he looks ahead to his retirement at the end of this season after 45 years with the Pacific Chorale, Alexander finds himself thinking a lot about “preserving the art form that we all love.” He exhorts his choral music colleagues to create a more inviting environment, a “way in” for general audiences, one that routinely incorporates visual elements as simple as lighting or projected artwork. More and more, says Alexander, “bringing people into the concert hall requires creative thought, using ideas from the theater and our sister arts fields that will make a more fulfilling experience for audiences.”

Peterson feels certain choral theater is a trend that’s not going away. “We’re standing on the brink of something here.” With choral theater, he believes, “we’re dealing with what the next chapter of choral music may be” or, he says, shifting metaphors, “a new lens through which to view choral music as an art form. And that lens is more able to meet the next generation of listeners where they are in their lives.”

The question, “What is a choral event today, tomorrow?” is constantly on Donald Nally’s mind. In recent years, The Crossing has increasingly used extra-musical elements in its performances. For himself as a conductor, he says, “the increase has changed some of my thoughts about creating works and what it is I hope to say.” Nally feels “choral-theater work is just one of those genres in which we try to describe our world, occasionally make sense out of the chaos, better understand ourselves, which is really what we’re doing. We’re telling stories, whether staged or not. That’s our job: telling stories about the world we live in.”

Judith Malafronte is a freelance music journalist and mezzo-soprano with an active solo career. She is currently on the early music voice faculty at Yale University School of Music.